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Leading the culture change, from the east of England

The change in the relationship between universities and students has been revolutionary – but its benefits are many.

I was honoured to be asked to speak recently at the Universities Australia annual conference about a topic that sits at the very heart of our educational mission in the 21st century: students as partners.

I am very proud of the university I lead. I’ve spent 27 years at the University of East Anglia (UEA) and I have watched the institution grow and evolve over that time. It’s a brilliant place to live and learn. Fantastic students and great academics.

One of the most dramatic changes in my time has been the nature of the relationship between the university and its students. That relationship has changed a great deal. And it’s happened at a revolutionary rather than an evolutionary pace.

The introduction of tuition fees and student loans in the English higher education sector, coupled with the introduction of the Teaching Excellence Framework and the new Office for Students, has undoubtedly brought seismic shifts to the dynamic between students and universities.

It has brought a focus on ‘partnership’ and ‘students as partners’ in education, students as co-producers in their education.

But what does this actually mean to students in England?

What students want

To get a sense of this, I asked two of my UEA colleagues, Jack Robinson and Mary Leishman, to share their thoughts with me on this subject. These can be found online (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=FIosLt9hCUk), but I will highlight one or two of the things they mentioned and my own reflections on them.

Jack is the UEA Students’ Union sabbatical officer for campaigns and democracy, and Mary is the SU’s undergraduate education officer.

Firstly, on students as partners, they talk about their role as partners as being one in which they need to be ‘assertive’ and ‘challenging’.

Importantly though, they also recognise that our students love UEA and want to help to make it ‘even better’ than it already is. Well, there we are most certainly on the same page. As vice-chancellor, that’s also part of my drive. It’s what gets me out of bed in the morning.

So that’s a great starting point – a common goal. We will always need to do better as needs and expectations change. Our students feel they can contribute to that by ‘co-decision’ making at all levels.

The new Office for Students in England is certainly encouraging that. We now have students on pretty much every senior body, including the Senior Officers Remuneration Committee, which is important at a time when vice-chancellors’ salaries are so much in the public eye, both in the UK and Australia.

What students offer

To the casual observer, this focus on ‘partnership’ must mean politicians have successfully created a market in higher education, with students as informed and discerning consumers and universities as innovative and responsive providers of high-quality learning experiences. Right?

Wrong. We shouldn’t fall into the trap of seeing students as consumers. We should not see it simply as a purchaser/provider relationship. To do so would be selling both students and universities short.

Mary and Jack’s view is that students have much more to offer than simply being consumers. Students want to co‑create with us.

At UEA we actually developed our new Vision 2030 with our students and staff. Our students are a rich resource of ideas, and in Mary’s view they provide information for free that universities would pay consultancy companies thousands of dollars for.

Nevertheless, what might inelegantly be described as ‘increased consumerism’ has certainly been fuelled by the introduction of fees and loans in England.
Students now have much more at stake. They have skin in the game, and their expectations are much greater than they once were.

Rightly so. But that cultural change was coming anyway. And it was overdue. UEA has long had a reputation for excellent student satisfaction and has been one of the top-performing universities in England since our National Student Survey was introduced.

But we have to work with students to maintain and build on that. It’s not a given. It needs culture change among everybody, not just the vice-chancellor. If we do not engage, it will go wrong. And it often does.

Mary and Jack feel strongly about this. Don’t be ‘patronising’, don’t just ‘go through the motions’. In reflecting on their comments, here are the key words that come to the fore: honesty, partnership, listening, demanding, creative, thoughtful, assertive, challenging and communication.

So you get a sense of their take and their view of working with me and my senior management team at UEA. Our student leaders define the relationship as one of ‘assertive partnership’, and for me that’s pretty much right.

We have to have mutual understanding, we have to be honest, we must communicate, and as a university we have to listen carefully to our students and act on their views.

And while I’m signed up for that, I also recognise that it’s a change of culture than can be hard for some colleagues. It’s a culture shift, and it can be a really uncomfortable one for both senior academics and professional services staff at times. Giving students a seat at the table is the right thing to do, but for some staff that will feel difficult, initially.

It is my job as vice-chancellor to lead the culture change.

Innovative thinking

Let me finish with an example. Back in 2015, I started working alongside the Students’ Union on the Universities UK taskforce on sexual harassment and hate incidents. Our SU took a really strong lead on the issue and asked if I would back them and provide institutional leadership.

I did and I’m very proud of the work we did together on the UK taskforce report and the work we continue to do with the students at UEA to set very clear expectations about zero tolerance for sexual harassment and incidents of hate, increasing awareness of the issues and offering training, support and reporting mechanisms for both students and staff.

At the beginning of this academic year, we worked with the UEA Students’ Union to develop a campaign that would help raise awareness of these issues and signpost students and staff to resources they can access. The campaign’s called Never OK.

Temporary pavement graffiti popped up all over campus overnight highlighting key statistics from the UK taskforce report. It’s not a traditional mode of communication for us and it was the first time it had ever been done at UEA.

It was purposely designed to grab people’s attention and get them talking – and it worked.

When UEA security reviewed CCTV footage to identify the graffiti ‘vandals’, there was the vice-chancellor with spray can in hand!

The campaign was designed in true partnership with students.

It was co-designed, co-branded and literally co-delivered by students and staff.

If you work with students, the solutions you get may well be more creative and more impactful than you expect. And that’s part of the tremendous value they bring. Students will help you make change happen.

Professor David Richardson became the vice-chancellor of the University of East Anglia, UK, in 2014. He joined the university in 1991 and has held a series of leadership positions since that time, including dean of the faculty of science, and pro-vice-chancellor for research, enterprise and engagement.

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